Monday, July 11, 2011

Murder and Mayhem at the Cemetery

Saturday was a beautiful, sunny day. There was a slight breeze so that the sun wasn't too hot and it was day that people were happy to be alive. I spent it touring the Mountainview Cemetery in celebration of their 125 anniversary. When I decided to attend I didn't realize that the tours that were going on all day focused on different topics. but I was more than pleased to learn that I would be going on the crime and murder tour.

Guide Chris Mathieson led the group to different graves and told the story of how each person was murdered. Sometimes we couldn't find the person in question - the above photo is of a grave marker so you can understand how we can miss the one we needed.

The first story Mathieson told us was of Martin Thomas  Britel (not sure of the spelling of the last name) whose life was taken from him when he was only 22. In 1971 Vancouver had its share of hippies and one such man, Edmund Watts, resided in a house at fourth and Arbutus in the Kitsilano district. There were other people who lived in the house with Watts, namely his three girlfriends. One night the three girls go out to party and one ends up bringing home Martin. Well the two ended up downstairs having sex and Watts found out. He wasn't happy. Things get a bit murky from here on.

A call was placed to the police that something had happened and although no address was given, they were able to trace the payphone that the call came from. When the police arrived in the general area they found two women - two of Watts' girlfriends - sitting on a curb crying. Upon entering the house they found Martin lying on a bed, naked except for a woman's robe and dead.  It took a while to get the house's residents to talk but this is what the story was.

While Martin was having sex with one of Watts' girlfriends, Watts came downstairs and stabbed the young man in the back - killing him instantly. Watts and the youngest girlfriend (she was sixteen) went on the run but he was eventually caught and sentenced to life in prison.

In 1973 the body of a young woman was found in Stanley Park. In case you ever need to know Stanley Park is a good place to bury a body due to the acidic soil that causes remains to disappear quickly. And considering the size of the park, there has to be lots of hiding places. However remember that bodies have been found so it isn't a fool proof way to get rid of the evidence

Back to the  young woman. She was sixteen years old and had died of a skull fracture. Initially she wasn't identified but an hour after she was buried it was discovered that her name was Susan Marie Martin. Martin had been in a girl's reform school and had gone missing. Now the authorities know who this female was and who her family is but that is a long ways from knowing her killers.

But some people can't keep their  mouths shut and it soon came to the attention of the police that a couple of guys were bragging of killing a young woman in the park. They were brought in for questioning and the story that came out was that Martin had gone with these two men to party in the park. She was supposed to have sex with both of them but after the first fellow was finished, she changed her mind. That is when she was killed.  It also came to light that there was a witness who had witness the sexual assault and murder. One of the killers told police about him and where find the body. The body of a sixteen year old male was found and to this day remains unidentified.

One of our local heroes, Police Chief Malcom Maclennan, is buried here with a simple marker. I have written about this brave man's story before so I won't do it again. Just click this link to read his tale.

This is the headstone of another one of Vancouver's brave policemen who died in the line of duty. Robert Gordon MacBeath was born in Scotland and fought in World War I. His exploits proved why the Scottish were nicknamed the Ladies from Hell when they fought! He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his service and given land in Scotland but found the farming wasn't in his blood. He longed for excitement so he and his wife came to Vancouver where he joined the police force. In a routine traffic stop he was killed. He was twenty three years old.

Mathieson told us that in the 125 years that the Vancouver Police Force has been in operation only fifteen or sixteen officers have been killed in the line of duty. And only thirty-two to thirty-five in all of BC. Now even one is too many but it is comforting to know that the numbers are so low.

This next story is one that makes tours like this so interesting and excites armchair detectives and conspiracy nuts everywhere. It is the story of Janet Smith.

Smith was a young lass from Scotland - very pretty and reported to be somewhat flirtatious. She worked as a nursemaid in a ritzy home in Shaugnessy - the wealthiest district in Vancouver. In July of 1924 Constable James Green was called to the house on Osler Street to investigate a shooting. He found Smith downstairs - it looked as if she had been ironing - with a massive wound in her head and a .45 calibre pistol in her hand. However there was no blood, bullet or brain tissue on the wall and there were no powder burns on the young lady's face which suggested that the gun had been fired from some distance away. The back of her head was smashed in, as if hit by a heavy object.

Green was an experienced investigator and he decided there was only one answer. He told his superiors it was a clear case of suicide.

The body was sent to the mortuary before it went to the morgue. The body was embalmed and vital forensic evidence destroyed before it could be looked at. An intentional error? Hmmm.

Pressured by Scottish societies, the Vancouver Police Department scrambled to correct its errors. A Chinese houseboy, Wong Foon Sing, had been the one to discover the body and he became the scapegoat. The police reportedly hired a private investigator to kidnap Sing and torture him to tell the truth. For six weeks men in Klu Klux Klan outfits beat and terrorized the man, trying to get him to confess to the crime. Finally they let Sing go, dropping him off at a street corner where he was immediately picked up  by police and charged with Smith's murder.

Wong Foon Sing stood trial for Janet Smith's murder and was found not guilty. He left Canada right after the trial, never to return. And to this day Smith's murder remains unsolved.

There was also an unveiling of a new headstone.

This is an interesting tale that has led to one of our city's urban legends.

Simon Hirschberg was the proprietor of LeLand House at Granville and Hastings Streets. Hirschberg was found in his attic one day, dead with a bottle of laudanum at his side. Marital and business problems were said to have led to the man taking his own life.

Hirschberg was not a small man - he weighed three hundred pounds or more - and at that time the road to the cemetery was little more than a winding, muddy trail through the brush. For years the story has been that the men taking Hirschberg's body for burial got tired before arriving at their destination. So he was buried at the corner of what is now 33rd Avenue and Fraser Street.

However, someone going through the registry for the cemetery found that his body was interred on the grounds. When he was put there is unknown but that is one urban legend that has been debunked. (Personally I like urban legends, they make the city more interesting.)

According to John Atkin, the man who was telling us about Simon, there were only two men buried in the street and that was after the great fire of 1886. One had been running from the fire and fell into a tangle of skunkweed and brush while another tried to hide under a mattress and smothered to death.

Beside Hirschberg's grave and near this lush tree is the body of the first person interred at Mountainview Cemetery.

Naturally this headstone is not original - it wouldn't have lasted over a hundred years in this good of condition.

I found this tour to be fascinating. Chris Mathieson told us of two books, PoliceBeat by Joe Swan and Who Killed Janet Smith by Ed Starkins, which I was able to order through He gave me ideas for future novels and some inspiration on how to tweek one I am working on right now. Thanks Chris.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into Vancouver's darker side. Find the beauty around you.

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